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Works Thomas Girtin

Lindisfarne Castle

1796 - 1797

Primary Image: TG1113: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), Lindisfarne Castle, 1796–97, graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper, 38.1 × 51.8 cm, 15 × 20 ⅜ in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund (06.1051.1).

Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1906 (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • Lindisfarne Castle
1796 - 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on laid paper
38.1 × 51.8 cm, 15 × 20 ⅜ in

‘Girtin’ lower centre, by Thomas Girtin (the signature has been cut, suggesting that it once extended onto an original mount which has been lost); ‘Mackenzie’ on the back, in pen and ink

Object Type
Studio Watercolour; Visible Fold in the Paper
Subject Terms
Castle Ruins; Coasts and Shipping; Durham and Northumberland

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
185 as 'Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland (Called also Holy Island Castle)'
Description Source(s)
Viewed in 2001 and 2009


'Hopkins', as 'St Michael's Mount' (Girtin and Loshak, 1954); J. Palser & Sons (stock no.16096); bought by Roger Fry (1866–1934) for the Museum, 17 October 1906

Exhibition History

New York, 1953, no.89; Detroit, 1968, no.113; Katonah, 1979, no.12; New Haven, 1986a, not in the catalogue; Denver, 1993, no.46; London, 2009, no.17


Redgrave and Redgrave, 1866, vol.1, pp.393–94, p.397; Fry, 1907, p.202; New York, 1951, p.16; Girtin and Loshak, 1954, pp.62–63; Holcomb, 1974, p.34, p.43, pp.56–57; Morris, 1986, p.16; Smith, 2002b, p.13, p.82, p.133; Bryant, 2005, p.82; Simms, 2008, pp.20–21

About this Work

This dramatic view of Lindisfarne Castle, with the ruins of the priory church in the distance, was no doubt based on a drawing made on Girtin’s visit to the north east in 1796. A different view of the castle (TG1113) is one of three on-the-spot sketches the artist made on his visit to Holy Island, off the Northumberland coast, and the five different compositions that resulted constitute the most comprehensive survey of a location encountered on the tour. Although the castle features in the distance of one of the views of the priory, it was the twelfth-century ruins of the church, with its associations with the earliest days of Christianity in Britain, that was Girtin’s main focus. This is not surprising given the fact that the location of the castle is in no way as spectacular as Girtin chose to represent it. Built in the sixteenth century on a hill no more than thirty metres high, the castle was not even a ruin when Girtin visited as it was still in use as a garrison. The key to realising the dramatic potential of an unprepossessing site lies in Girtin’s adoption of a boldly centralised composition, which was derived from his study of John Robert Cozens (1752–97). Having created versions of works such as An Unidentified Fort on a Cliff by the Sea (TG0662) for Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833) in collaboration with Turner, Girtin was equipped to develop a dramatic composition that unites the fourteenth-century tower and the rocky outcrop into a monumental form of great power. Girtin employed a similar structure in a number of other north-eastern views, including Bamburgh Castle (TG1104) and the comparable Dunstanburgh Castle (TG1101), which, given that it has the same dimensions, may even have been conceived as a pair with this work.

Girtin’s sleight of hand when it comes to the composition would be worth little were it not accompanied by a range of effects in keeping with the subject’s dramatically enhanced appearance. Using a narrow palette of blues, an olive green and a warmer earth colour, the artist succeeds in evoking a range of effects, from the rain clouds to the left to the lengthening shadows of the sunlit area to the right, the latter of which contrast effectively with the deep gloom that envelops the castle itself. The smoke that drifts across the scene from the limestone works is of particular interest as it constitutes one of the first instances of Girtin using an area of opaque bodycolour. In this case, the artist has floated touches of blue over the white to evoke the effect of smoke. The combined result of the artist’s technique and his composition is, according to Adele Holcomb, a powerful image of the ruined castle as ‘an enactment of an ideal of self-sufficiency and fortitude’ (Holcomb, 1974, p.31). Holcomb’s identification of Girtin as the originator of one of the key ‘symbolic elements in Romantic landscape’ is part of a sustained attack on the still prevalent influence of a formalist reading of landscape painting, concerning which Thomas Girtin (1874–1960) and David Loshak’s book on the artist is singled out for particular criticism (Girtin and Loshak, 1954). The issue, Holcomb continues, is not just that the authors of the ‘standard monograph on the artist’ miss the fact of ‘Girtin’s priority in the genesis of the motif … of the heroic castle’ but also that writers on Turner have in turn failed to see the origin of works such as Dolbadarn Castle (Royal Academy of Arts, London (03/1383)). Holcomb’s attack on the standard thesis that Turner’s view of Dolbadarn was influenced by Richard Wilson (1713/14–82) is part of a wider point about the way in which castles were much more prominent amongst Girtin’s earliest subjects. It was only as a result of Turner following in Girtin’s footsteps in his 1797 tour of the northern counties and sketching the same subjects, she concludes, that he caught up with his contemporary (Holcomb, 1974, pp.56–57).

The group of views of Northumbrian castles from 1797 and 1798 illustrate for the first time one of the most idiosyncratic features of Girtin’s mature finished watercolours: the incorporation of the drying fold found in the cartridge and wrapping papers he used. This manifests itself in this work and in Dunstanburgh Castle: The Lilburn Tower (TG1101) as a vertical band where the watercolour washes have accumulated in the disturbance in the paper’s surface caused when it was laid on a line to dry out. Such is the vigour of Girtin’s style that this potentially disruptive feature appears in keeping with the overall effect of the work, however. A close inspection of the watercolour reveals another feature that is common to many of the works that resulted from the 1796 tour: the lower part of Girtin’s signature has been lost. This does not mean that the drawing has been cut down; rather, it indicates that it was initially surrounded by the artist’s original border, onto which the inscription had partly strayed, so that when the mount was removed, part of the signature disappeared too. A large and imposing work such as this was no doubt commissioned to hang on the wall, but the frame would have left the border visible until, at a later date, changes in display fashion led to the scrapping of what was once an integral part of the work.

1796 - 1797

Lindisfarne Castle


1794 - 1797

An Unidentified Fort on a Cliff by the Sea


1798 - 1799

Bamburgh Castle


1797 - 1798

Dunstanburgh Castle: The Lilburn Tower


1797 - 1798

Dunstanburgh Castle: The Lilburn Tower


by Greg Smith

Place depicted

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